Talking Points

By Jessica Portner — January 01, 1994 7 min read
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Standing at the podium and grasping his stopwatch like a good-luck charm, Alex Funk defends President Clinton’s health care plan more vehemently than even the most loyal Democrat on Capitol Hill. “This plan is going to be cost-efficient,” declares Alex, a high school senior from Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

“But they are going to turn people away from the plan,” Larry Daugherty, a senior at Seattle’s Auburn High School, shoots back.

Unimpressed, Alex quickly counters that under Clinton’s managed-competition system, all Americans would have health coverage. Seconds later, the timer beeps.

These young men are not the President’s junior health care campaigners but rather participants in the kickoff tournament of the precollegiate debate season at Bronx Science High School in New York City. On this October weekend, Alex and Larry, their debate partners, and 150 other high school students from 24 states occupy every classroom in the school for a marathon on this year’s topic: health care reform. Throughout the school year, debaters will wrangle over the question—chosen by the National Forensic League—of whether the United States should guarantee comprehensive health coverage to all its citizens.

Each debate team is made up of two students. Teams can choose to back the administration’s plan or the status quo, or they can come up with their own prescriptions to reform the nation’s health care system. “It’s very rare that the debate question coincides with world issues,” says Richard Sodikow, Bronx Science’s debate coach, who has hosted 23 invitational tournaments during his 26-year tenure. In recent years, debate questions have focused on such social issues as homelessness or drug trafficking but not specifically political issues, says Sodikow, whose team, as the host of the tournament, could not compete.

A current political topic such as health care reform poses more hazards than many other issues, he says, because debaters who have carefully prepared arguments may wake up one morning and find that events have overtaken them, rendering their cases obsolete.

Although these students may not have surpassed the efforts of the Clinton administration’s 500person health care task force, they do put forth some unconventional suggestions. One team, for example, recommends a holistic approach to health care that would include coverage for herbal remedies and alternative medical techniques. Coverage should include meditation classes, the team contends, because studies show the practice reduces stress and ultimately makes people healthier.

Some of the other proposals are more familiar, such as a staterun health system with limited federal control, similar to a plan introduced in Congress by Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan. One debater suggests that the controversial “rationed care” approach used in Oregon be adopted nationwide.

Although the debaters say they must ultimately detach themselves from their arguments in order to shift from one idea to the next, some have strong personal opinions about how the nation’s health care system should operate. Larry Daugherty, the Seattle senior, who says he spent 14 hours each day for seven weeks at debate camp researching health care reform, favors the Clinton plan because he believes that managed competition will decrease spiraling health care costs. “We claim to be this free system,” Larry says, “but our people aren’t healthy.”

Die-hard debaters tend to spend their summers at debate camps rather than at the outdoor variety. Alex and Larry, for example, met last summer at a camp at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, while their debate partners—Steve Sael and Nigel Barron, respectively—hooked up at Dartmouth College’s camp.

Alex and Steve opted to attend separate camps so they could meet more judges and gather more evidence to support their debating positions. Steve is so devoted to this extracurricular enterprise that when his mother moved to Minneapolis, he moved in with Alex’s family so he could stay at Cedar Rapids’ Washington High School with his partner.

Most high school debaters say they are attracted to the activity because it is a perfect primer for careers in law and politics. But they also pursue debate in hopes of one day winning college scholarships. Although no debate scholarships are awarded at the high school level, every national collegiate tournament awards scholarships to the winning teams. While no exact figures are kept on the number of such scholarships offered, dozens of these tournaments take place each year.

On any given weekend, there are more than 100 high school tournaments around the country, says James Copeland, president of the National Forensic League, which hosts the national championship every year and chooses the national debate question. Although the league has 2,500 chapter schools nationwide serving thousands of individual debaters, only affluent private schools and public schools whose debate records can attract corporate sponsorship can afford to participate in the cross-country tours. One coach says his school spent $25,000 last year to send its twoperson team on the circuit. Debaters often raise money through doughnut sales, car washes, and other activities.

A fiercely competitive lot, debaters see themselves, in the purest sense, as athletes—a sensibility reflected in their rankings: novice, junior varsity, and varsity. Players train up to 25 hours a week and win team letters that they sew onto their school jackets. Hurling arguments at lightning speed, they often work up a sweat. “It is as rigorous as football,” says debate coach Sodikow, sitting in his Bronx Science office, which is crowded with dozens of silver and gold trophies reflecting seasons of success. “But they are more like touring professional golfers.”

Throughout the weekend at Bronx Science, team members tote two or three large plastic tubs bearing the fruits of their many hours of research into the health care system. The weight of each tub is a kind of status symbol, like a weight lifter’s heaviest press. Filing the materials is the hardest part of debating, Nigel says, only half-jokingly.

During each round, the teams rely on cards containing newspaper articles or quotes from politicians, philosophers, economists, or other sources to make their points. In the time allotted, they lob as many points as possible to their opponents, who must return the volley with a verbal punch or lose the round. “It’s stimulating to know you can beat somebody with your mind rather than with your physical prowess,” says Bronx Science senior Jordan Alpert, a host at the tournament. “I gave up baseball for this.”

The debaters at the tournament, 60 percent of whom are male, are judged on their analysis, reasoning, evidence, organization, and delivery, and they go to elaborate lengths to gain a slight edge over the opposing team. Most, for example, are neatly dressed; the young men wear ties. Sometimes debaters go too far. One debater at the Bronx tournament is docked 25 points (out of 30) for calling his female opponent a “whore.” Being abusive and arrogant is not in the tradition of debate, says the judge, before heading down the hall to register the score.

Still, most of the debaters at this tournament seem less likely to stumble on decorum than speed. During the 90-minute debate, each team member has two eight-minute speeches in which to cram as many arguments as possible. The rest of the time is devoted to rebuttal and crossexamination. With this limited time to make their points, debaters in recent years have begun to talk more like auctioneers than orators.

It takes time to learn how to speak both fast and clearly, and judges, like auction-goers, have developed the knack for “listening quickly.”

To master this high-speed repartee, Alex’s partner, Steve, says he holds a pen in his mouth while he practices his speeches. If you can speak clearly with a pen in your mouth, he opines, then your speech will be more understandable during the debate. Some debaters say they consult singing coaches to learn how to improve their breathing techniques.

But even when the cases are painstakingly prepared and the speeches carefully rehearsed, luck plays a part in a tournament’s outcome. For this reason, Larry and Nigel carry a toy Buddha around with them, rubbing its tummy for luck before every round.

At this particular tournament, however, the Buddha’s magic fails the Seattle team: They are knocked out the first day, during the elimination rounds. But Alex and Steve ascend to the final round before losing to the reigning champions from Atlanta. “We are excited, but we’re running out of adrenaline,” Steve admits, holding a plaque he will add to his growing collection.

Standing in the rain outside the school before heading for the airport and home, the four young men are still on a high. Steve is lobbying Larry and Nigel to come to Iowa for his school’s invitational tournament at the end of January. “You can crash at our house,” Steve says. Larry and Nigel nod at each other, weighing the expense of the trip, missed classes, the jet lag.

Nigel slaps Steve on the back before loading his tubs in the van. “See you in Iowa,” he says.

A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 1994 edition of Teacher as Talking Points

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